Using maps, compasses and vague directions, 20 teams of four endurance athletes tackled 300-plus miles of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula in the 2015 Expedition Alaska adventure race. They traveled by foot, sometimes on snowshoes, and by mountain bike, kayak, raft and packraft in a grueling contest that ran non-stop for seven days. They carried everything they needed to survive Mother Nature’s wilderness, and each other.
Beyond the skills and physical requirements, the race was geared to test the boundaries of teamwork, sleep deprivation and human determination – not just for the racers, but also for the race directors and the filmmakers.
Jeni McNeal, an Eastern Washington University physical education, health and recreation professor confesses to her addiction for multi-day adventure racing.
She entered her first event in 2008 totally unprepared for the endurance and skills required to finish a non-stop, multi-sport backcountry test. “But I was hooked,” said the university’s Exercise Science Program director.
McNeal, 47, is a glutton for punishment, having entered about two dozen adventure races, including seven expedition races longer than two days. A five-day race across the Mojave Desert gave her the first taste of a severe survival situation. “Extreme dehydration,” she said. “Not good.”
Expedition Alaska was her toughest test.
“Alaska was very quickly much more of a survival experience than a race to be won,” she said. Everyone recognized that as soon as we got on the glacier. That set the tone for the rest of the race. We want to go fast, but we want to survive this.
“It’s creepy how suddenly it went from a lovely 30-mile walk on a glacier to being at death’s door. I ripped two shoulder muscles off the bone crossing the glacial river in the fourth hour of the race.”
But she had a race to finish and the surgery would have to wait.
The descent off the glacier was even more chilling as the group traveled down a steep, shaded chute of rock and packed snow. “I had the first near-death experience of my life,” she said.
Two teammates went down first in a sitting glissade using ice axes. McNeal tried the same technique but with her injured shoulder she couldn’t get a good bite with her ice ax and instantly gained speed and went out of control.
“It was like a free fall,” she said. “All I could see was the valley below. I was hoping to crash into a wall. Breaking my legs seemed like the best-case scenario.
“I let out a primal scream of terror as I realized this was my last two seconds on earth.”
She smacked a rock with her hip. Instead of shattering a bone, which could have been expected, it spun her feet-first into some scree. She stopped, scraped and bruised, scared and shocked, but whole.
After that, the Class 5 rapids on Six Mile Creek were fun, she said. “I’d never been in whitewater like that.”
The most challenging features of the race after that included trying to stay awake through 70-80 miles of flatwater kayaking. McNeal said she’s “pretty much hardwired for sleep deprivation.”
Just as important: knowing how to cope with teammate issues.
“Two of us knew each other and the other two hadn’t previously met any of us,” she said. “One had never done an expedition race before. His longest race had been eight hours. It made for some tricky team dynamics. We had to convince him that pain and injury didn’t mean he is really in trouble.
“It’s not unusual in a team for one person to assume the role of peacekeeper. In our group, that was me.”
Explaining her love for adventure racing, she said the events take her to stunning places she’d never dreamed of exploring.
Last month she finished a four-day race along the boundary of Virginia and Kentucky. She’s signed up for the adventure racing world championships coming to Wyoming in August, the first time in the USA. “They don’t tell us exactly where it will be, but Wyoming has some great country to work with.
“I’m older than most of the females in these races,” she said. “I think it boils down to the certain amount of money you need for all of the gear and travel, so you don’t see a lot of women in their early 20s.”
Time is a factor, too. “You have to train for the mental as well as the physical nature of the races,” she said. “That means going beyond conventional workouts.”
She said her weekend 24-hour workouts might involve carrying a 35-pound pack while distance running, hiking, biking and kayaking. “It’s hard work being prepared for a hard race,” she said.
Brian Leitten was swept off his feet while crossing a swift glacier-melt stream in the first few hours of the 2015 Expedition Alaska adventure race, severely bruising one leg, spraining the other ankle – and he wasn’t even a racer.
“I still had seven days to go to shoot the race,” the filmmaker said. “I took pain killers for the next three days.
Leitten, 37, of New York City, dove into making a documentary about the Alaska adventure race after wetting his feet previously to film an event on his own in Patagonia. Funded by grants, he organized a Production Master Class at the University of Cincinnati and began filming other action outdoor events. Expedition of Alaska was the most ambitious, he said.
“It had built-in drama because it’s unscripted and much of it is on uncharted cross-country routes,” he said. “That’s what makes it unknown and unsafe. That’s what makes it appealing.”
The Expedition Alaska film crew included seven students, two teachers and nine pros, three of which were graduates of previous classes who had experience filming other expedition races.
“I’m an Eagle Scout and a big outdoor adventure person, but all of our students are not,” he said. “We had them submit resumes and did personal interviews to make sure the ones we selected were physically and mentally prepared.”
The field producer worked with the race director months in advance. “The course is top secret to everyone else, but we were able to influence the route for the purposes of the film,” Leitten said.
“We had to have entry and exit points for the crew and check points for the racers where we could get them to talk to the camera. We looked for the best scenery, things like that.
“To film along the mountain bike leg, our crew had to hike 9 miles both ways, leaving the day before the teams started to arrive and sleeping there to be ready.
“Besides our gear, we’re hiking in with cameras, drones for aerial shots and extra batteries for power.”
The filmmaker also recruited racers to wear Go-Pro cameras. “We looked for story tellers and athletes willing to carry cameras when they didn’t want another ounce of weight or hassle,” he said. “We coached them on basics to capture the footage that would make the film.”
“Everything on the glacier, including a crevasse rescue, was filmed by racers. For safety purposes, we didn’t go too far onto the glacier. They hiked the glacier for 20 hours. We just went up the first 200 yards.
“The whitewater rafting was easier to film because we knew exactly where the action would be and could get right next to the water.”
“Everyone on the crew had to have medical evacuation insurance,” he said.
“The last day of the race, we hiked up Mount Marathon, the site of a July 4 event out of Seward where they race up 3,000 feet and then back down. Our racers did that as the final leg after they’d been going for seven days. And we had to film it.
“There was a nice, easy trail, but it would take three hours. Instead, we took the crazy straight-up path and got up there with two minutes to spare before the first racers arrived.”
After filming in Alaska, the class worked a year to finish the documentary. “It’s a team effort, including 20 graphic design students.”
“This project will probably be one of the toughest the students will work in their careers. They likely did more in this college project than they’ll do in five years in the entertainment industry.”
David Adlard says, “Calling Expedition Alaska a rigorous event is an understatement.
“During the seven-day race, we called in four helicopter rescues, three jet boat rescues and picked up I don’t know how many team members to transport for medical attention,” he said.
Adlard spiked his interest in adventure racing as a participant. When hauling his carcass safely through treacherous terrain on foot and by rope, bike and raft wasn’t enough of a challenge, he took on the responsibility for all of the participants and crews by promoting and directing adventure races, including Expedition Alaska.
Adlard, 55, who lives in Athol, Idaho, started small in 2006 setting up a day-long, multi-sport adventure race out of North Idaho’s Farragut State Park. His company, Perpetual Motion Events, became more adventurous itself with each event before tackling Expedition Alaska, which he planned for 21 months.
Distances, logistics and the associated costs launched the event into another league of production difficulty.
“It was a point-to-point race, starting on the Eklutna Glacier not far from Anchorage and ending more than 300 mostly wilderness miles later in Seward,” he said.
Only one of 20 teams cleared all legs of the course.
Unexpected costs started stacking up before the race even began when the axle broke on a trailer transporting race equipment from Idaho. “Everything we have is in that trailer and it hadn’t arrived two days before the race began,” he said. “It cost me $11,000 to get that rig to the start in time.”
The race crew of 20-25 people had to serve 80 racers, haul their 50-gallon bins, food, bikes, kayaks and other equipment, traveling 500 miles to support the race.
“In some cases, they had to pack stuff on their backs because there was no vehicle access to race checkpoints,” he said. “And since the race went 24/7, so did the crew, including the two days after the race to pack up.
“I’m pretty sure I slept less than most of the racers. We were in places that had no cell phone coverage and even our satellite phones were sketchy sometimes.”
Balancing adventure with safety was a tough challenge in laying out the course, he said.
“Adventure racers are looking for the ultimate adventure experience. They don’t want it sanitized or pasteurized. They want to be out there on their own and responsible for what they do.
“Our goal was to create the greatest, toughest adventure race in history. For the most part we did that. We have liability waivers and insurance, but we don’t want anybody to die. That said, there is an inherent risk.”
The course was stunningly beautiful but also severe. If racers didn’t feel up to a section, they had bail outs here or easier routes there.
The Six Mile Creek whitewater section was so dangerous, Adlard hired a professional rafting guide for each boat to assist the teams. The stretch includes three canyons including 12 Class 3 rapids, five Class 4s and six Class 5s that are rated for experts only.
“Even one pro guide said it scared the crap out of her,” Adlard said. “The racers, on the other hand, said it was the most incredible rafting they’d done in their lives.”
Adlard rates the glacier leg as “the single most epic leg in the history of adventure racing.” The teams marched, sometimes roped together, more 30 miles gaining 6,000 feet of elevation and then down as they dodged crevasses.
“One fell into a crevasse,” Adlard said. “It was too dangerous to have a safety crew out there. He was rescued by another team – the No. 1 team in the world – and helicoptered out with a separated shoulder.”
While mountain bikes and touring kayaks were provided at the start of various legs in the race, team members had to carry personal inflatable packrafts most of the way because of all the river crossings. They could ford or swim some creeks but had to raft across others.
“Some teams did a lot of the first part of the race wearing drysuits,”Adlard said. “They were in cold water off and on for several days before they even saw their bikes.”
In other legs, racers had to paddle kayaks 23 miles through a passage canal as well as 30 miles down the length of Kenai Lake.
The racers raved about cycling the Resurrection Trail, he said. “It’s one of the greatest mountain biking routes anywhere: 60 miles of scenic single track over a pass without a shred of civilization.”
And then they crossed the treacherous Turnagain Arm mud flats in advance of the famous bore tide, the second largest in North America. “It comes in so fast, it creates a wave that attracts surfers,” Adlard said.
Concessions in race design had to be made to accommodate the film crew, but it was a win-win for Adlard. “There was a fantastic vibe out there,” he said. “We became a backcountry family helping each other out. And of course we all came out of it with a stunningly beautiful documentary of the event.”
Expedition Alaska was part of the Adventure Racing World Series, a coalition of 12 events scattered around the globe leading to the crowning a world champion for the sport. Adlard said there’s a strong possibility that another Alaska event will be organized in 2018.
The total cost of the 2015 Expedition Alaska is around $174,000, not including the film crew’s cost, he said.
“The $400 an hour every time we needed a helicopter added up fast and so did everything else we needed up there,” he said.
“Financially, the race wasn’t the smartest decision I’ve ever made, but I think we could do it smarter next time and be just as adventurous.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.